Saving a language

Sami minority studies ulpan model in effort to keep its ethnic dialects alive.

Member of the Sami ethnic group 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Member of the Sami ethnic group 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The approximately 100,000-strong ethnic Sami minority, living in a sparse, frozen region flung across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of Russia, have a gargantuan task ahead of them: Preserving the dozens of dialects of their traditional language before assimilation erases them forever.
To add to the challenge, some dialects of Sami have as few as 30 speakers left, and most are not mutually understandable.
A mission of Sami leaders arrived in Israel this week to study how the country invented and implemented modern Hebrew into a successful, vibrant language in 100 years, and how to utilize the ulpan language study program to teach new learners.
No one ever believed that a university could teach in Hebrew, Hebrew University President Menachem Ben-Sasson told Kevin Johansen, Lars Joar Halonen and Nils Ante Eira on Monday, after the three observed Hebrew-language instruction at the university’s Rothberg International School. The university’s name came from the founders’ determination, back in 1925, to have Hebrew become a spoken language for everyday use, Ben-Sasson explained.
“They said it would be a dream, but it’s like your dream,” said Ben Sasson. People thought the university was crazy to insist on teaching the sciences in Hebrew, a language that students barely spoke, he added. “You can get students to be a light to revive language and positive nationalism vis-à-vis language.”
Johansen, Halonen and Eira are on a five-day visit to understand how Israel teaches new immigrants the language in the various ulpan (language immersion) programs. The Norwegian government has sponsored a number of initiatives to preserve and promote Sami culture, including creating a Sami-language kindergarten, which opened in August.
“Parents want to learn with their children,” said Johansen, who estimated that his was one of only three households in a municipality of 300 Sami that speak Sami as a day-to-day language.
Johansen, an adviser for Sami issues at the University of Nordland in Norway and for the county governor of Nordland, said they hoped to expand their contacts with Israel.
“Even though we have been here a short time, we learned a lot and we have started planning for the next trip, to bring Sami teachers for a longer stay so they can learn ulpan teaching methods,” Johansen said after meeting Ben-Sasson. “We want to focus on the spoken language so that our people are able to communicate with each other. We think that will help motivate people and lead to better results.”
Sami delegations have also traveled to Scotland and Wales to learn more about successful initiatives to revive European languages.
Sami leaders organized the Israel trip through contacts with the Israeli Embassy in Norway.
The Sami’s language initiatives are still in their infancy. The Sami Language School was founded in Nordland in 2008, and there are hopes to create after-school programs and an adult learning center there as well.
Some local artists are choosing to perform only in Sami, even though they cannot speak it fluently. The Sami are also stressing language instruction for nurses who work with the elderly and need the language to communicate with some of their patients.
An additional challenge for the Sami is the wide range of dialects. Due to geographic isolation, a number of different Sami languages sprouted across northern Europe that are not mutually understandable. The largest language group, North Sami, has about 15,000 speakers. But some dialects have already been lost, and others have only 30 people who know how to speak them.
The Sami’s visit to Israel coincided with International Mother Language Day, a UNESCO holiday celebrated every February 21 and created “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world,” according to the UN’s website.
“Linguistic diversity is our common heritage,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in statement honoring International Mother Language Day.
“It is a fragile heritage. Nearly half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken in the world could die out by the end of the century,” she said. “Languages are who we are; by protecting them, we protect ourselves.”